Shakespeare rewritten

The Browsers Ecstacy

Shakespeare rewritten

For this moment, however, he stood petrified before two Shakespeare scholars as they examined a little note the boy claimed was written by Shakespeare himself. It was even signed: ‘Wm Shakespeare.’ After careful examination, the two powdered-wig gentleman proclaimed it to be the real thing. This was an astonishing discovery because nearly 180 years after the Bard’s death, there was nothing on paper in Shakespeare’s own handwriting (save for a few signature samples).

18th century London was jubilant: this little discovery meant there were more Shakespeare documents to be found, perhaps even the manuscripts of his plays. Nobody was more thrilled than the boy’s Shakespeare-worshipping father. And that’s the only reason young William-Henry Ireland had forged the note in the first place: he desperately craved his father's approval.

In the month’s that followed William Henry produced a torrent of Shakespeare fabrications: letters, poetry, even a full length play, which was produced with much fanfare at the prestigious Drury Lane theatre. The forgery was declared Shakespeare’s lost masterpiece. A 19 year old clerk had imitated Shakespeare’s handwriting and his literary style successfully. The question 18th century Britain should have really asked, says Doug Stewart, author of The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, is not why there weren’t more Shakespeare manuscripts to be found but how come there were any at all?

Printed plays, including those of the Bards’, seldom carried the name of the playwright.
Even the first Shakespeare folio, even though printed in the hundreds, could be had for as little as  five pounds. (Today the first folio is very scarce and auctioned in the millions).

So, people threw away or destroyed printed copies - manuscripts had even less value and no one, including the playwright, bothered to preserve them. This is what London’s literary world in the 18th century should have kept in mind when clamoring for more Shakespeare manuscripts. There seemed to be an insatiable need in 18th century London for such Shakespeare material and the author suggests that this is what finally compelled even the century’s experts to declare these forgeries the work of Shakespeare.

He had become a god to them, but in his own time, he was not only obscure but often dismissed as a hack talent who dragged in pulpy elements such as low comedy, supernatural touches and fantasy to the highbrow art of the theatre.

Until this time, points out Stewart, the practice of collecting relics was confined to objects or memorabilia associated with saints and kings. Now for the first time, the things once owned and touched and used by an artist had become worthy of collecting. 

This tale of a grand literary hoax is well known and yet Douglas Stewart who writes on history and art for the Smithsonian magazine, has refashioned this famous case of forgery into a gripping and lively book that takes us deep into not just the tragic life and work of this master boy forger but the truth behind Shakespeare as well. New books on Shakespeare have become a regular feature of the publishing world, and it is not easy anymore to keep track of them, or read them all. You have to pick and choose between the scholarly, the journalistic and the popular.

The best bit of Shakespeare-biographizing has come from literary journalists, Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars and Paul Collins’The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World. When the First Folio first appeared in 1623, it was just another folio-sized book to be bought and forgotten.

An auction held 20 years earlier records that it fetched only two pounds -not even the original cover price! A century later it becomes “the great white wale of rare books.”  with millions of pounds at stake and collectors working up a frenzy to own it. In The Book of William, Collins begins with tales of the first printing and traces the entire arc of its journey to the 21st century. 

As a child, William Henry’s father constantly put him down, unfairly comparing him to gifted artistes, and the boy felt he had no chance of ever impressing his father.
He was mediocre at school. As an adolescent he became an apprentice to a record office, and spent hours alone copying legal papers. He discovered he had a fine hand, and could draw. He isn’t exactly sure when the idea formed to forge a letter by Shakespeare, but one turning point was when he found out about the other boy-genius poet and forger, Thomas Chatterton.

William realised that with this signed profession of faith, he could kill two birds: get his father's attention and silence the scholars who had been speculating that the Bard could have been Catholic, and not a Protestant. His forgery would show that Shakespeare was not a papist.

One of the things William would forge often is the “long-lost” manuscript of the great tragedies like  King Lear or Hamlet. He knew it wasn’t enough to copy by longhand the published edition because they had been corrected and edited and published long after Shakespeare had died. He needed to write them out in a longhand that was closest to the English used in the Bard's own time. Since there wasn’t anything substantial written by Shakespeare available for scholars and collectors to compare the forgery to, it made the task easier. But even as a copyist of deeds and documents William strove for authenticity, so his Shakespeare forgery was probably (even in his own view) very close to the actual handwriting!

But to go from here -fluency with calligraphy-to authoring a play that was accepted as a work by Shakespeare is genius -and it is this hidden genius that Stewart explores in this fascinating tale of literary forgery.

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